Beginning as so many films do, with the protagonist in danger, teetering literally on the precipice, Limitless promotes itself as an energetic, showy, stylish thriller right out of the gate. The constituent elements are there in abundance - a pulsing soundtrack, trippy opening credits, and of course, Hollywood stud muffin du jour Bradley Cooper - yet the latest film from Neil Burger (who previously brought us the wonderfully twisty Ed Norton magic pic The Illusionist) never feels exciting or developed enough. Eddie Morra (Cooper) is an aspiring writer living in New York, marred by writer's block, and after being put through probably the most civil break-up ever committed to film at the hands of girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), has pretty much given up on life. However, when he conveniently bumps into his former brother-in-law, he finds an answer; a pill, apparently FDA-approved, which can enhance his intelligence and the capacity of his brain. Naturally, this opens up countless possibilities for Eddie, both creatively and for more nefarious means... If you can get over the mountainous contrivance of a chance encounter with an old stranger forcing this story into motion, as well as the absurdly obtrusive voice-over narration throughout, there is plenty to like in Limitless, particularly in the opening act. Burger has an interesting take on how to visually convey Eddie's brain essentially unlocking itself, beginning with small calculations - such as recalling a law book he glanced upon years ago - essentially arguing that our brain retains this data like a sponge yet lacks the means to recall it. Also neat is Burger's choice to drench the picture in deeply saturated colours whenever Eddie is on the drug, and then drain it when he is not. Cooper is extremely well-cast here in something of a dual role, satisfying as the messy-haired, typically dishevelled writer, while also filling out suits wonderfully as the slick, suave alpha male-type character that the pill transforms him into. The inherent manly cheekiness that has made him successful as both a comic lead in The Hangover and an action star in The A-Team shines through sublimely here, and for all of the film's faults, he is not one of them. Cooper seems to be having so much fun in the scenes in which he uses the pill to better himself socially - picking up woman and so on - that it is almost a shame he decides to exploit it for wealth, which leads him down a more familiar rabbit hole of boardroom politics and gang warfare, in which Robert De Niro's absurdly-monikered honcho character Carl Von Loon and Russian gangster Gennady (Andrew Howard) wrangle for both his influence and the pill itself. There is no doubt that Limitless sees De Niro at his most alive and eager in years, and the master-progeny dynamic between him and Cooper works as surprisingly well as it did with Shia LaBoeuf and Michael Douglas in Wall Street 2, even if that film struggled equally with third-act issues. Things, of course, eventually go all Total Recall, yet the tone is never as explicitly Verhoeven as you'll probably want it to be; the quest for power becomes overly serious and drains the fun out of the whole experience. A murder mystery thread is haphazardly thrown in for good measure, as well a chase sequence through Central Park that's probably the most mild and uninvolving action scene you're likely to see all year. In the second-half - and especially, the third act - Burger loses focus, failing to capture the big picture and instead focusing on uninteresting ancillary characters, chiefly the woefully underdeveloped Gennady. Ultimately it all feels too lukewarm, with too little to care about, when the set-up suggested an energising, pulsing thrill-fest. The vague climax is also rather disappointing, ending elliptically and fading out rather than screeching to the finish line in a drug-infused sprint as it should given how eager it seems to ape both Trainspotting and Vanilla Sky. Ironically for a film so keenly centred on the idea of reaching one's own potential, Limitless doesn't nearly begin to realise its own. Limitless is released in the U.K. on Wednesday.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.